You Can Do It!

Despite some bumps in the road, these 5 entrepreneurs created thriving businesses. Learn from their challenges to help keep your company on the right track.

Editor's note: Find out how many entrepreneurs overcame challenges--and get fired up to become your own success story--in our Success Stories area.

The five hardy entrepreneurs profiled here all made it through lean or rocky times. Their takes on what a newbie needs to know can help you achieve success.

Keeping it Real
David Huertas, the owner of Santa Fe, New Mexico-based El Meson, saw a niche not covered by any other local establishment and decided to go for it. This chef opened his authentic Spanish-cuisine restaurant in July 1997, and at the end of 2000, he completed an expansion to double El Meson's capacity. Today, Huertas, 35, expects 2006 sales to reach $900,000.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Focus specifically on what you want to accomplish. Says Huertas, "It was tempting to say 'The heck with it' and do hybrid [Spanish-Mexican] dishes, but we had a good plan, so we stuck with it."

2. Once you identify your goals, keep it simple. "We set a pace, as far as setting the standards for authentic Spanish cuisine."

3. Do something you enjoy. "This will be your life for a while," says Huertas. "Be prepared to sacrifice a lot of time while you're getting going."

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Know the market. Huertas did his homework, working for other food establishments in the area where he wanted to open his restaurant.

2. Know the business. Working at restaurants showed Huertas the ropes of being a restaurateur: pricing, portions, sourcing, employees, etc.

3. Provide consistent, high-quality products. "People come [to my restaurant] time after time to get the same great experience," says Huertas.

4. Listen to your customers, and make changes based on their feedback. "Your customers are your greatest allies and can help you grow."

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

Huertas maintained an unwavering belief in himself: "I believed in what I wanted to do," he says.

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? Why didn't you give up?

"A few times, I became discouraged because I saw other restaurants doing incredibly well," says Huertas. "I stuck with it because I knew if I didn't [offer authentic Spanish cuisine], someone else would."

Q:What was your biggest mistake ?

"Being overly ambitious and spreading myself too thin. In the beginning, we were open seven days a week for lunch and dinner." Huertas determined when he was making the most profits and changed his hours accordingly.

Slow and Steady
Armed with a great plan and models for different services, three former employees launched Blue Gecko Inc., a Seattle-based IT services firm, in January 2000. Founders Chuck Edwards, 34, J.J. Ecker, 34, and Sarah Novotny, 33, grew the business slowly through funding gleaned mostly from independent consulting. The trio opened a data center in Texas last year, and Blue Gecko now has 2006 projected sales of $2.5 million.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Overplan! Know how your company will generate sales. Edwards says your sales plan should contain several different models, encompassing a variety of possible products or services.

2. Start with some seed money. According to Edwards, Blue Gecko's lack of funding prolonged the startup process.

3. Hire administrative help immediately. "A business needs bills handled and files organized," Edwards attests. "It's not expensive and will save you time and headaches."

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Scrutinize every expense. Blue Gecko, now a global firm with clients in Europe and Japan, was a ver-tical operation in its first year. The partners worked out of home offices.

2. Take advantage of open source solutions (i.e., freely available software), and buy used equipment for internal operations. "We constantly asked, 'Do we need to spend X dollars? What's the ROI?' If we didn't under-stand how revenue was tied to it, we didn't buy it," says Edwards.

3. Refine your fulfillment processes. "We adjusted or eliminated services that weren't profitable." Occasional outsourcing helped the company handle clients' problems without changing its core business.

4. Know how to relate to customers. Edwards advises, "You need to know how to defuse things when someone is yelling at you." The Blue Gecko approach: Give clients several concrete, doable options.

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

A good sense of humor: "When things aren't going well, I try to keep things in perspective, take a deep breath, tell a joke, chill out and move on," says Edwards.

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? Why didn't you give up?

"I considered quitting several times when I had a few 80-plus hour weeks in a row," Edwards admits. "I didn't because I couldn't stand the thought of working for a big company again."

Q:What was your biggest mistake?

According to Edwards, "Not getting enough funding at the get-go and not having a clearer sales and marketing plan." Because Blue Gecko's seed money came from long-term consulting jobs, the company was "very light on the business development side."

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This article was originally published in the July 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: You Can Do It!.

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